Saturday mornings the summer of his first remission, my brother Jesse kicked off his baggy bathing shorts in our front yard and laughed, splashing naked with Maddie in her inflatable blue wading pool. When my mother wasn’t watching, too busy pulling up dandelions and monkey grass, Maddie slipped off her one-piece bathing suit and ran with Jesse, naked and shrieking with laughter, chasing after him, circling the grass of our front yard, then running out into Broken Bow Road.
“Come on, you little grunions,” my father shouted over the lawnmower, wet grass flecking his freckled ankles as he stood sunburned in his khaki shorts. “I told you not to play in the street.” But when they grinned at him and waited for him in the middle of the road, he just shook his head and laughed, running out into the street after them, chasing and snatching them both up squealing like skinned rabbits under each arm, and he carried them back to swim in Maddie’s blue wading pool in the front yard.
“You’ll get runned over!” he growled at Jesse. “Smooshed like a skunk!” Then he blew raspberries into the kids’ bare bellies and held them as my mother wrestled them both squirming back into their bathing suits.
Maddie was six, Jessie three.
“Don’t, Duece,” my mother said. “Don’t encourage them.”
But they did it again and again—suits off as they circled the front yard, then out into the street, my father laughing and running after them like it was some kind of game—until my mother shouted, “Duece, don’t! You’re going to get them killed!”
My father dropped his head and cut off the mower, flipped the sloshing, heavy pool over till it emptied, then dragged it upside down from its circle of yellow grass in the front yard and into the back yard, latching the side gate shut behind him so they could never play naked in the street again.
Waking from his first coma in his Baylor Hospital bed that November, his arm taped to the transfusion board, Jesse whined for weeks that he wanted to go swimming. So when my mother’s daylilies bloomed and the oncologist said Jesse’s white cell count had dropped, my mother let the water hose sit coiled and warming on the patio in the Saturday morning sun, and she put on his bathing trunks before all us other kids had gotten up.
Spotted with yellow-blue bruises on his chicken-bone knees and elbows and shins, his belly white and round and thumping-hard as a honeydew melon, Jesse settled into the pool, shivering a little, hugging his goose-pimpled arms, but then he laughed and slapped the water with his palms, and he wouldn’t get out, not even when he was shivering and his lips had turned bright blue. Then Nate and Hanna and I joined him, still warm from our beds, Maddie shielding him as we bumped and splashed him, four rowdy kids and one sick kid in a three-tubed vinyl pool from Fed-Mart.
Two years later, the summer after Jesse died, we lived in a green-shuttered rental house on Estate Lane. When Maddie begged every Saturday morning to go swimming in her old blue wading pool, my mother finally gave in and dressed her in her one-piece suit and found the sun-faded pool crumpled and mildewing behind my father’s tool shed, blowing it up red-faced till it creaked with air. But Maddie just sat there in the cold water, the mermaid at the bottom of the pool smiling up at her demurely, covering the buds of her breasts.
When Maddie heard my father start up his mower from the front yard, she stepped into the wet grass and shimmied off her cold, wet suit, straps off her shoulders, then down, snapping past her ankles. Then she ran in circles around the back yard squealing with laughter, Reveille barking after her, as she unlatched the side gate and ran out onto Estate Lane.
“Stop it,” my father said in the front yard. “That’s enough. You can’t go running around naked in the streets. You’re a big girl now.”
But my sister just smiled at him in the middle of the street, her bright red hair coiling and dripping down her shoulders.
My father cut off the mower. “You come here right now,” he shouted. “I’m not telling you again.”
But she just stood there grinning.
“I’m counting to three,” my father said, and when she stood through the whole count snickering at him, he ran into the street again and jerked her up by her wrist high in the air and popped her hard three times across her backside.
He put her back down, her bare wet feet slapping the sidewalk, and said, “You want to get yourself killed? You think this is some kind of goddamn game?” And my mother just stared at him, her arms crossed, my father’s red palm prints across Maddie’s little butt.
A car passed, then another, and then my father let Maddie go. But he didn’t see the third car coming, a yellow ’62 Ford Fairlane, a woman with black-horned rims and a stiff blond bouffant shouting at her child in the back seat as she drove.
That’s when Maddie ran out into the street again.
“Jesus Christ, you want another whipping?” my father shouted, and then he saw the car. “Get over here right now. Goddamn hell and shit.”
Maddie arched her eyebrows like a broken bow, and she ran as my father ran after her, straight toward the car, but she didn’t see it, looking back at my father, and the woman in the car didn’t see her, her back turned in her seat to shout at her child.
Maddie dodged my father in the street, weaving and ducking, then stumbling and falling, scraping her bare knees. She shrieked and ran away from him again, and the car kept coming.